Trainer with SMA Turns ‘Underdogs’ into Winners

From the moment Linzey Zoccola received her first service dog at age 16, she knew what she wanted to do with her life.

Zoccola has type 2 spinal muscular atrophy and has used a power chair since the age of 4. She has always been strongly independent, but having a service dog was a revelation.

Here was a creature that not only brought her joy and companionship, but also helped her perform tasks at home and school, achieve greater independence, and even smoothed her path socially.

A service dog literally could change the course of someone’s life, Zoccola realized, and she was inspired to begin her own career in assistance dog training.

After high school, Zoccola started volunteering with a service dog training school near her home in Lititz, Penn. She then went on to a paid position as “puppy program coordinator” before deciding to go out on her own three years ago.

“I saw that up to 20 percent of dogs were being ‘released’ from the program because they couldn’t live in a kennel setting. Many of those dogs could be awesome service dogs,” she says.

“And with the [service dog] wait list an average of 2 to 4 years long, any reason to wash out a dog that doesn’t relate to public safety is a big waste.”

Phoenix Assistance Dogs

Zoccola, 26, named her training program Phoenix Assistance Dogs (PAD) to symbolize her emphasis on shelter dogs, rescue dogs, and dogs that had "washed out" of traditional service-animal training schools, including schools that train guide dogs for the blind. Her program enables these good but rejected canines to rise from the ashes — like the mythical phoenix bird — into a new and purposeful existence.

PAD does not place fully trained assistance dogs; rather, the organization works with owner-and-assistance-dog teams. “The need was so great [for team training], I decided to focus on that,” Zoccola says.

Zoccola finds that people who want assistance dogs generally love animals and enjoy training their own dog. She guides them through a several-step process to determine their needs, desires, abilities and whether they have the human support and financial resources necessary to take on a service-dog-in-training.

“The support network they have is really important, because puppies are such a big responsibility,” Zoccola says.

As for the cost, Zoccola recognizes that people with disabilities often are low-income, so she asks for donations (one hour of training is valued at about $25) and charges fees on a sliding scale. However, as she points out, dogs are expensive to maintain, so if a potential owner does not have money to train it, they are unlikely to have enough money to care for it over many years.

In addition to offering private and group classes for owner-dog teams, Zoccola has a few puppies in training that have not yet been matched with owners. Each dog is carefully screened before Zoccola turns it over to an owner or makes the commitment to begin training.

“All puppies are temperament evaluated before being brought into the program, and evaluated on a regular basis thereafter,” the PAD website says. “Our puppies are trained on a daily basis and highly socialized. If a puppy or dog ever shows signs of fear or aggression they are immediately released from our program and adopted out to a suitable home.”

Certification important

In addition to training, PAD will search for assistance-dog candidates and certifies previously trained assistance dogs. Unlike the training, these services can be conducted long distance.  

Zoccola says it takes about two years for a canine to become a fully certified assistance dog, depending on how many classes per week the dog attends. The first step is to bring the dog to the point where it can pass the Canine Good Citizenship test, which was developed by the AKC (American Kennel Club).

“This test was developed to show people that dogs can be good citizens — that they won’t jump on people, can walk through a crowd and can see a strange dog without responding,” Zoccola explains.

“We don’t teach them to open doors and pick up items until they pass the CGC.”

Although service-dog certification is not required by the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), Zoccola encourages it because she wants people to know that these dogs are completely safe.

There’s a lot of confusion about what the standards are for assistance dogs, Zoccola says, so certification provides people with assurance that the training has been first-rate.

Going back to camp

As a child, Zoccola loved MDA camp. She recalls one summer when she was about 9, she saw another child at camp with an assistance dog — a big black poodle.

“I remember being mesmerized by it,” she says. The experience started her and several other campers on quests to get their own service dogs.

Since founding PAD, Zoccola has gone back to MDA camp several times to introduce her dogs to the kids and to get them excited, just as she was, about having an assistance dog.

Of course, as Zoccola hastens to point out, dogs — especially puppies — are a lot of work, and they’re not for everyone.

But for her, and for many other people with disabilities, assistance dogs are more than their "best friends." Assistance dogs make their lives possible.

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